Air passengers told to expect 'serious disruption'

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Woman holding passportImage source, Getty Images

People face "serious disruption" at UK airports over Christmas due to planned strikes by border staff, the home secretary has warned.

Suella Braverman said people should "think carefully" about their plans as "they may well be impacted".

Staff at six airports will stage walkouts from 23 December to Boxing Day and from 28 December to New Year's Eve.

The strikes come at one of the busiest times for travel and coincide with walkouts by train and rail workers.

It is the first Christmas since 2019 that airlines have been able to operate without widespread Covid restrictions.

Up to two million passengers are expected to arrive between 23 and 31 December at the airports where the strikes will take place, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium.

It said that more than 10,000 flights are scheduled to arrive at Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports during the period.

Around 1,000 Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union members - including people who work in passport control - are taking industrial action after the Home Office offered workers a 2% pay rise instead of the 10% they requested.

On Thursday, Ms Braverman said: "If they go ahead with those strikes there will be undeniable, serious disruption caused to many thousands of people who have holiday plans.

"I really want to urge people who have got plans to travel abroad to think carefully about their plans because they may well be impacted."

She added: "It's very regrettable that they have made this decision to potentially strike over critical times in the run-up and following Christmas and the New Year."

But Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said: "The government can stop these strikes tomorrow if it puts money on the table.

"Like so many workers, our members are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. They are desperate."

The government says it will draft in military personnel to help minimise disruption if the walkouts go ahead.

But travel expert Simon Calder said: "That doesn't make up for the decades of expertise and experience that Border Force staff have so you're going to see queues building up.

"Once that happens you could get passengers kept on planes to avoid too many queues in the arrivals hall. When that happens the planes aren't going out again full of other passengers, delays build up and that's when you get diversions and cancellations starting up."

It is expected that if there is disruption, it will mainly affect passengers flying into the UK.

A report in The Times said that airlines had been advised to cancel up to 30% of flights over the eight days of strikes to prevent disruption at airports.

A spokesman for Airlines UK, which represents the industry, said: "We urge all parties to work on reaching an agreement to avoid the need for industrial action at what is such an important time of year for many travellers."

One source within the aviation industry told the BBC that a letter from the Border Force to airports last week said that based on initial modelling, it would be possible to operate about 80% of 2019 flight levels during strike action.

However, it is understood that some airlines had already expected to run about that level of capacity because they were not back to pre-Covid levels yet.

EasyJet said it was "too early" to say what impact the strikes would have on its flight schedules, but said it was planning to operate as normal.

A spokeswoman said: "As you would expect, we are in talks with the individual airports on their contingency plans.

"We want to take our customers on their planned trips at this important time of year and so we urge all parties to reach an agreement as soon as possible."

Jet2 said: "We would like to let our customers and industry partners know that we very much intend to operate our full schedule of flights throughout the festive period, including on the dates when strike action is taking place."

KLM said it was "looking at its operation" over the Christmas and New Year period, after being informed by Border Force UK about the potential strikes. It said it does not intend to cancel any flights over the period but that the decision would be "constantly reviewed."

A spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic said it will "continue to work closely with government and industry to support contingency planning and minimise disruption".

They added: "Our customers' journeys over the festive period are our priority and we're focussed on supporting their travel plans, keeping them updated on any potential disruption at the border."

Heathrow Airport said its "priority is to ensure passengers get through the border safely and as quickly as possible".

It added: "We are working closely with airlines and Border Force on mitigation plans for potential strike action by Border Force officers and these plans will now be implemented for the notified days."

A spokesperson for Gatwick said: "We are disappointed that Border Force staff have decided to take strike action at this particular time.

"We expect that flights will operate as normal and remain in regular contact with Border Force about their mitigation plans. Additional airport staff will also be made available to help with passenger welfare on strike days."

Commenting on what action travellers can take, Mr Calder said that under European air passenger rights rules the airline "has a strict duty to get you to your destination as soon as possible, possibly even buying a ticket on another airline".

But he said: "There just aren't the seats available at the moment. All you can do at this stage is basically hope for the best."